After the American Revolution, ships that were deemed too costly to maintain were sold as merchant ships. Swords had been beaten into plowshares, cannons had been beaten into anchors. By the late 1780s, however, American merchant ships had become easy prey to pirates. Lightly armed, if at all, ship after ship fell victim to the risks of the high seas, particularly in the Mediterranean. Families and communities were forced to pay ransoms for the return of their missing sailors; the government was reduced to paying tribute to the Barbary States to prevent more attacks. Piracy went unabated because of the absence of an American Navy.

These conditions largely led to the Founders to include a clause in the Constitution under Article I, Section 8 “to define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas” and, under that same section, “to provide and maintain a Navy.” When tributes to the Barbary States reached 20 percent of the federal budget, the United States sent its squadrons to end the attacks, prevent further threats, and protect commerce. Ships conducting anti-piracy operations elsewhere continued on for several decades as threats rose and subsided in the Caribbean, the Adriatic, and the Straits of Malacca.

Generally, U.S. merchant ships have not been attacked by modern-era pirates (the MAERSK ALABAMA being the clearest exception) namely because there are comparatively few U.S. flagged ships on the open ocean. Rising labor costs in the late 20th century, among other reasons, led to U.S.-built ships being priced out of the global market. In addition, global shipping companies often seek less restrictive flags of convenience with countries that actually have little to no ability to protect them.

The threat of modern piracy is tangible. Piracy as a result of the largely ungovernable region of Somalia has risen particularly in the past five years. Again U.S. and other navy ships were sent to patrol the region and protect commerce. But there have been too few assets. Cooperation between navies has been largely positive. The establishment of the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor in the high-traffic area of the Gulf of Aden has been largely effective in mitigating the number and success of pirate attacks; this has led pirates to seek out opportunities elsewhere throughout the Indian Ocean. Another encouraging note is that the European Union may continue its mission for another year. In recent months, it appears that more mother ships that provide support to the small skiffs used to attack ships have been taken out of the fight.

Nevertheless, the differences in operational procedures and expectations (particularly with so-called “catch and release”) and opportunities to bring pirates to justice have been inconsistent or problematic. Last month several shipping organizations began a campaign calling for immediate concrete actions from governments to “find real solutions to the growing piracy problem” under the slogan “Enough is enough.”

Piracy has some direct consequences to the shipping companies who ply the waters, to the sailors whose lives are at risk (some 17 ships and 357 sailors are currently being held for ransom), and to the local economies who are reliant on secure and stable maritime environments. But there are also indirect and longer term consequences.  Namely if the U.S. is unwilling or unable to effectively deter piracy how would we respond to another failed or failed state who threaten the high seas?  Or, more importantly, if other organizations or states fail to learn from what is happening off Somalia. At the same time, pirate attacks have encouraged a small but apparently growing maritime security industry to fill protective requirements for shipping companies.

Chris Rawley wrote about this at the Navy milblog Information Dissemination and is correct. He suggests, in part: 1) “by allowing piracy to proliferate and expand, the greatest navy in the world has effectively ceded freedom of the seas to teenagers toting Kalishnikovs and RPGs. If our Navy cannot address this relatively minor situation, then how can we be expected to exercise sea power globally;” 2) “our failure to defeat piracy has greater strategic implications…piracy provides emerging strategic naval competitors with a perfect excuse to conduct unprecedented out-of-area deployments and improve their naval operations;” and 3) “similar to the proliferation of suicide bombers and IEDs, other non-state actors will realize the successful business model that Somali pirates have developed and emulate them in around the world.”

Heritage proposed a series of recommendations to address piracy last year in its report “Maritime Security: Fighting Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Beyond” and hosted a panel on the subject earlier this year. If there are answers, they must be found in the political will of the nation that sees the inherent risk and future consequences of insufficient action. This could mean the allocation or reallocation of maritime assets, changes in rules of engagement, encouraging participating navies to make greater contributions, and supporting stable regional governments in prosecuting and detaining pirates.